Staff Columnist

Grassley the maverick re-emerges in feud with Sessions

Senior senator reminds Iowans why we keep voting for him

Senator Chuck Grassley delivers remarks during the caucus for all Linn County precincts at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
Senator Chuck Grassley delivers remarks during the caucus for all Linn County precincts at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

This is the Sen. Chuck Grassley I know and love.

Grassley is sparring with fellow Republicans who say they won’t support his bipartisan proposal to reform criminal sentencing laws. Grassley has vowed to keep fighting, even suggesting he may side with Senate Democrats to block other legislation until his bill gets a fair shot.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would reduce some mandatory federal sentences, which are to blame for inflating prison populations and may lead to higher reoffense rates. The bill drew bipartisan support in a 16-5 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump have suggested they won’t support the Grassley bill. Sessions wrote a letter saying the reforms would set free “a highly dangerous cohort of criminals,” at a time when “we are in the midst of the largest drug crisis in our nation’s history.”

Supporters have refuted those claims, pointing out nobody would be automatically released from custody without additional review.

Grassley sharply criticized his former Senate colleague Sessions for imposing on the legislative process. During a committee meeting last month, Grassley said if Sessions wanted to legislate, “maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama.”

Grassley also blasted Sessions in a Twitter post, writing “Incensed by Sessions letter An attempt to undermine Grassley/Durbin/Lee BIPARTISAN criminal justice reforms This bill deserves thoughtful consideration b4 my cmte. AGs execute laws CONGRESS WRITES THEM!”

It’s all classic Grassley: Capital letters; abbreviations, while still coming in under Twitter’s character limit; and openly criticizing his own party’s presidential cabinet.


Grassley points out his bill has support from a wide range of conservative stakeholders. That includes Sessions’ most recent GOP predecessor, Michael Mukasey, a George W. Bush appointee, along with right-wing activist groups like FreedomWorks and the American Conservative Union.

Grassley has assembled 23 co-sponsors for the bill, about half Republicans and half Democrats, including leading conservatives Sens. Mike Lee and Pat Roberts, and fellow Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst.

The strong bipartisan rebuttal to overstepping Sessions is especially refreshing at a moment when a few fellow Iowans are complaining Grassley has lost his edge. Critics say the sometimes-maverick veteran legislator has grown too partisan in the Obama and Trump eras.

The political data outlet FiveThirtyEight calculates Grassley goes along with Trump about 92 percent of the time. That’s below the median, but still much closer to top of the caucus — Sen. Thom Tillis at 97 percent — than to the bottom of the caucus — Sen. Rand Paul at 75 percent.

I sometimes share that frustration with our senior senator. Yet throughout his career, Grassley consistently has carved out priorities and committed to working with the other side to achieve them. Sentencing reform is one of those, and Grassley isn’t going away.

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